Dr. Melanie Barrett, Chairperson and Professor of Moral Theology, originally published this article for Vatican Insider Comment,Pubblicato il 29/05/2018. The original article is available here. All rights reserved.
“Continuity, Pope Francis, and Amoris Laetitia”
On January 31, 2018, a widely-publicized debate took place at Fordham University, between Villanova University theology professor Massimo Faggioli and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, on the legacy of Pope Francis. Both are well-known public figures in Catholic intellectual circles, and frequent commentators on Francis, though from different perspectives: Faggioli as a strong Francis-supporter, and Douthat as a recurrent critic. In the recent Fordham debate—which was contentious in content yet civil in tone—Faggioli contended that Francis’ papacy is seeking to teach Catholics the following lesson: Doctrinal continuity that goes all the way back to the person of Jesus Christ needs some discontinuity in the teaching and practices of the Church in order to get closer to Jesus. From my perspective as a Catholic moral theologian in full-time seminary work—training future clergy and lay ministers—this claim would need substantially more nuance and qualification in order to garner my assent. It is not self-evident to me that Jesus’ disciples became closer to him by rejecting some of his teachings. Rather, the exact opposite seems to be true.
Three examples from the New Testament: First, Matthew 16:23. When Jesus predicts his own suffering and death, Peter rejects the idea that such sacrifice is needed; rather than commending Peter for being innovative, Jesus responds by saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
Second, Matthew 19:1-12. When Jesus reaffirms the Genesis account of marriage as lifelong fidelity between one man and one woman, contends that Moses subsequently allowed divorce because the people were hard-hearted, and declares that this shall not continue for his followers, the disciples respond with disbelief, saying, “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus responds to their shock not by encouraging them to formulate a third alternative doctrine on divorce, but by offering a second vocational option—one that is equally rigorous in its demands—that of voluntary celibacy for the sake of God’s kingdom.
Third, Matthew 26:20-25. At the Last Supper, Jesus does not pat Judas on the back for being resourceful in creatively balancing his spiritual well-being with his material well-being—soon to be secured by thirty pieces of silver. Rather, Jesus forcefully asserts, “It would be better for that man if he had never been born.”
Accordingly, for any subsequent theological reform of the Church to be authentic, it must be radically faithful to the particular mission Jesus entrusted to his apostles and his successors. As Pope Benedict XVI cautioned in 2005, “discontinuity” contributes to reform only when it pertains to “contingent matters” indexed to particular historical contexts: not to fundamental principles of faith. As an example of “good” discontinuity, Benedict pointed to Dignitatis Humanae. When Vatican II recognized and made “its own an essential principle of the modern state”—namely the right to religious freedom—it “recovered the deepest patrimony of the Church,” for “the martyrs of the early Church died for their faith in that God who was revealed in Jesus Christ, and for this very reason they also died for freedom of conscience and the freedom to profess one’s own faith—a profession that no state can impose but which, instead, can only be claimed with God’s grace in freedom of conscience.”
What constitutes good discontinuity is an important question, of the kind that theology professors enjoy pondering with thoughtful colleagues while consuming ample amounts of wine and cheese. Faggioli, for his part, says that he agrees in principle with Benedict XVI’s view, but also worries that “an obsession with continuity in understanding Catholic tradition” encourages contemporary Catholics to reject Vatican II (for its apparent discontinuity) and to embrace political and social positions that are anti-liberal and authoritarian. If left unchecked, he cautions, this unhealthy obsession will “silently and incrementally” de-legitimize post-conciliar developments in ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue, and shut down discussion concerning “the role of women in the church, LGBT issues, care for creation, and social-economic issues.” 
But the question is not merely academic, for it lies at the very heart of current debates surrounding Pope Francis’ theology. Is Francis advocating positions that definitively undermine the very tradition of which he is its preeminent interpreter? His most vociferous critics fear exactly that; and Francis’ frequent juxtaposition of law versus reality, law versus gospel, seem to substantiate their concern that he is destroying essential Catholic doctrine. Or, is Francis merely innovating in ways that constitute a valid trajectory within a legitimate diversity of options, available in the broader tradition?
With regard to moral theology in particular—which is my area of expertise—I judge it to be the latter. Though some have characterized Francis as a heretic, I believe this to be unwarranted. Rather than repudiating essential doctrines, Francis is encouraging greater prudence regarding the pastoral application of doctrine to particular cases. A comparison with Thomas Aquinas is helpful here. Aquinas maintained that at the level of the general principle, moral truth is the same for all: both because there is one objective truth that binds everyone (for example, that murder is wrong), and because all human beings can know this truth through reason (presumably, without much difficulty). But given the contingency and complexity of human affairs, as we move increasingly toward the particular case, Aquinas held that truth is not the same for all: either because not everyone can access that truth (and therefore needs to consult authorities who possess greater knowledge and experience); or because more than one “true” answer is legitimately possible without compromising the objectivity of truth. After consulting the relevant authorities, conscience is the act by which human reason applies the general principle to a particular case, in order to arrive at a prudent judgment.
Furthermore, for Aquinas, the general moral principles that conscience applies to particular cases are not arbitrary laws. They are not legalistic impositions that unfairly suppress human freedom. Rather, moral norms are trustworthy guideposts to authentic human fulfillment. Just as the diabetic needs to be informed by practical principles such as “eat less sugar,” in order to learn how to become physically healthy, so too our conscience needs to be informed by moral principles, such as “don’t commit adultery,” in order to learn how to become spiritually healthy. However, the application of such principles to specific circumstances isn’t always straightforward and clear-cut, which is why Aquinas spends very little time doing this. Instead, he devotes most of his moral theology to delineating the full range of virtues that a person needs to make such prudent judgments correctly.
Pope Francis adopts somewhat of a parallel approach: even though he uses the Jesuit term “discernment” rather than the Thomistic term “prudence,” and spends more time discussing the complexity of circumstances than the virtues needed to make such judgments. Also, like Aquinas, Francis insists that the Church should articulate clear moral principles, in order to help believers form their consciences. Just read Laudato Si, Francis’ encyclical on the moral obligation to care for the environment, and you will find ample examples of such intentional conscience formation.
Much confusion has resulted, I believe, not because Francis has espoused error, but because his manner and style of pastoral application tend to lack the conceptual precision characteristic of his predecessors Benedict XVI and John Paul II. Accordingly, many people read Amoris Laetitia as a Rorschach ink blot: seeing in it whatever they want to see and pointing to specific sentences—taken out of context—to substantiate their preferred interpretation.
So why does Francis speak so ambiguously, compared to his predecessors? For example, why relegate the question of the reception of the sacraments for people in irregular marriage situations to a mere footnote in chapter eight? Why not provide more precise directives either in the document itself or after the fact: aside from commending the Argentinian bishops for their directives? And why not respond to the dubia?
These are questions that only Francis himself could answer. However, if I were to speculate, I would conjecture that such ambiguity is somewhat intentional on Francis’ part, because he believes that it will help doctrine better correspond to the concrete circumstances of people’s lives. Francis’ primary concern in evangelization is not precision of doctrine, but rather responsiveness of doctrine to the messiness of human existence. He is not a deductive thinker, who begins with principles and then applies them to cases. Rather, he immerses himself in a particular context, and then asks which aspects of doctrine can heal the specific type of brokenness that he encounters. The end result is a set of overarching guidelines for pastoral care: within which diverse methodological approaches can be regarded as valid.
Notably, Francis does not worry that these diverse approaches will engender confusion regarding Church teaching. Instead, he expresses confidence that this will open greater space for the Holy Spirit to operate in the lives of the faithful and those they seek to evangelize. In Evangelii Gaudium, he writes, “For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. But in fact, such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel.” He then cites John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio to contend that accompaniment in personal, spiritual growth must proceed “with mercy and patience” yet “without detracting from the evangelical ideal.”
As justification, Francis invokes the traditional teaching of the Church—which stipulates that even when one performs an act that is gravely evil in an objective sense, one’s subjective culpability might be reduced, such that the sin is not mortal—by citing the Catechism, number 1735: “Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors.” It is with this caveat in mind that Francis goes on to express optimism that God’s saving love “is mysteriously at work in each person, above and beyond their faults and failings,” for “whenever perfection is not possible,” the Gospel can still bring goodness and light “without renouncing the truth.”
In Amoris Laetitia, Francis makes a similar argument. Paragraph 295: “Saint John Paul II proposed the so-called ‘law of gradualness’ in the knowledge that the human being ‘knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by different stages of growth’ (FC 34). This is not a ‘gradualness of law’ but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law. For the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace, even though each human being ‘advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love in his or her entire personal and social life’ (FC 9).”
Francis’ priority is to apply the saving message of the Church to this situation—here and now—with theological clarity playing “catch up” over time to harmonize pastoral practice with the Deposit of Faith. Paragraph 300: “If we consider the immense variety of concrete situations…it is understandable that neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases. What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases, one which would recognize that, since ‘the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases,’ the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same…This is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline, since discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists…What we are speaking of is a process of accompaniment and discernment which ‘guides the faithful to an awareness of their situation before God…Given that gradualness is not in the law itself (cf. FC 34), this discernment can never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church.’”
Importantly, both Aquinas and John Paul II would agree with Francis that not everyone in an “irregular situation” is in mortal sin. Consider the example of a person who is divorced and civilly remarried without annulment. Perhaps objective grounds for an annulment exist, but the annulment was not granted either because the ex-spouse lied, or was unwilling to participate in the annulment process, or the couple couldn’t provide enough evidence or witnesses to prove their case in the external forum. Or, perhaps one’s prior marriage was sacramentally valid, so objectively one is now committing adultery with the second spouse—which constitutes grave matter—but one’s subjective culpability is so diminished (due to ignorance or a lack of freedom) that one’s sin is venial rather than mortal. In either case, the person remains in a state of grace and thus could receive communion: for it would be efficacious for them. The only issue from a moral perspective is whether one’s receiving communion would cause confusion about the Church’s teaching, and thus scandal.
When Francis praises the Argentinian bishops for permitting some people in irregular situations to receive the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist, and then also affirms as acceptable the Polish bishops’ draft guidelines (of last summer), which preserved John Paul II’s prohibition of such reception, Francis is not thereby instituting moral relativism regarding the indissolubility of marriage. Rather, he is giving individual bishops the latitude to assess within their own dioceses what would cause scandal and what would not, and to develop pastoral guidelines accordingly. Although the exact letter of the law of canon 915 prohibits people “persevering in manifest grave sin” from publicly receiving communion, regardless of their subjective culpability, the spirit of the law is to prevent scandal. Because the Pope is the supreme legislator and thus the chief interpreter of canon law, Francis is exercising his papal prerogative in yielding the interpretation of canon 915 to his fellow bishops, according to their particular situations.
Consequently, Francis’ controversial innovation does not involve moral theology per se, but rather ecclesiology and the interpretation of canon law. Traditional doctrines concerning the indissolubility of marriage, and the necessity of being in a state of grace to receive Eucharist, have not been altered. Francis’ shift pertains entirely to pastoral practice, and it seeks to maximize the Church’s ability to provide spiritual medicine to all those in need of healing. Assuming the recipients are not in mortal sin—which would create an obstacle to receiving God’s grace—such medicine will be efficacious for them.
By so doing, Francis is not subsuming doctrine into pastoral practice but allowing the two to operate in tandem. After all, doctrine and pastoral practice represents two sides of the same coin, for both aim toward “the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church.”
 A version of this talk was presented on April 5, 2018, as a formal response to Massimo Faggioli at the “Habemus Papam +5” event commemorating five years of Pope Francis’ papacy, sponsored by The Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage, Loyola University Chicago.
 For the full-length video, see https://livestream.com/accounts/662353/events/8021809/videos/169590864. For a summary of the debate, see Jack Jenkins, “Ross Douthat and Massimo Faggioli Debate Francis’ Legacy,” America, February 1, 2018. https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2018/02/01/ross-douthat-and-massimo-faggioli-debate-francis-legacy.
 See, for example, Faggioli’s 2015 book, Pope Francis: Tradition in Transition (Paulist Press) as well as his frequent articles in Commonweal; and Douthat’s 2018 book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism (Simon & Schuster), along with many of his New York Times op-eds.
 Faggioli made a similar claim at the April “Habemus Papam +5” event at Loyola.
 Pope Benedict XVI, “A Proper Hermeneutic for the Second Vatican Council,” in Matthew L. Lamb and Matthew Levering (eds.), Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2008), xiii-xiv. Originally addressed to the Roman Curia, December 22, 2005, “Ad Romanam Curiam ob omnia natalicia,” AAS vol. XCVIII (6 January 2006): 45-52.
 Massimo Faggioli, “Obsessed with Continuity: What an Essay on the Mortara Kidnapping Confirms,” Commonweal (January 20, 2018). https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/obsessed-continuity.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I-II q. 94, art. 4, “Whether the Natural Law is the Same in All?” http://dhspriory.org/thomas/english/summa/FS/FS094.html#FSQ94OUTP1; and I q. 79, art. 13, “Whether Conscience Be a Power?” http://dhspriory.org/thomas/english/summa/FP/FP079.html#FPQ79A13THEP1.
 For a helpful analysis of the Ignatian conception of accompaniment and discernment undergirding Francis’ Jesuit-style approach to Amoris Laetitia, see Cardinal Marc Ouellet, “Accompanying, Discerning, Integrating Weakness,” L’Osservatore Romano, November 21, 2017. http://www.osservatoreromano.va/en/news/accompanying-discerning-integrating-weakness.
 Importantly, Francis consistently distinguishes conscience from ego: “So we also [like Jesus] must learn to listen more to our conscience. Be careful, however: this does not mean we ought to follow our ego, do whatever interests us, whatever suits us, whatever pleases us. That is not conscience. Conscience is the interior space in which we can listen to and hear the truth, the good, the voice of God. It is the inner place of our relationship with Him, who speaks to our heart and helps us to discern, to understand the path we ought to take, and once the decision is made, to move forward, to remain faithful,” weekly Angelus address, June 30, 2013. http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com/2013/06/jesus-always-invites-us-he-does-not.html. Francis made the same argument more recently, in November 2017, drawing on the theologian Romano Guardini. https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/pont-messages/2017/documents/papa-francesco_20171111_videomessaggio-simposio-amorislaetitia.html.
 Amoris Laetitia is Pope Francis’ 2016 post-synodal apostolic exhortation on marriage and family life. https://w2.vatican.va/content/dam/francesco/pdf/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20160319_amoris-laetitia_en.pdf. The previous exhortation on this topic, also following a synod of bishops, was Familiaris Consortio, published by Pope John Paul II in 1981. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_19811122_familiaris-consortio.html.
 The dubia refers to a set of questions formally posed to Pope Francis by four Catholic cardinals, in an effort to combat certain problematic interpretations of Amoris Laetitia. Notably, Francis did not respond to their request for clarification: even after they made their letter to him public. http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/
 This argument stated here (and detailed in the next two paragraphs) is excerpted from Melanie Barrett, “Doctrine and Praxis in Pope Francis’s Approach to Evangelization,” in John C. Cavadini and Donald Wallenfang (eds.), Pope Francis and the Event of Encounter: Global Perspectives on the New Evangelization Series, vol. 1 (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018): 113-128.
 Evangelii Gaudium 44. See also John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio (22 November 1981), no. 34. Italics added for emphasis.
 Evangelii Gaudium 44-45. Italics added for emphasis.
 Amoris Laetitia 295. The parenthetical references are to John Paul II’s
Familiaris Consortio. Italics added for emphasis.
 Amoris Laetitia 300. Italics added for emphasis.
 It is important to note that an annulment can still be filed even if only one spouse participates. However, if the non-participating spouse is the person who was objectively at fault (i.e., by not intending lifelong fidelity at the time the vows were exchanged), then his or her refusal to admit this interior, mental reservation—either verbally before reliable witnesses or formally in writing—could make it impossible to prove in the external forum. The simple fact of having committed adultery during the marriage might not suffice as evidence.
 See Bishops of the Buenos Aires Pastoral Region, “Basic Criteria for the Application of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia,” section 9: “It may be right for eventual access to sacraments to take place privately, especially where situations of conflict might arise. But at the same time, we have to accompany our communities in their growing understanding and welcome, without this implying creating confusion about the teaching of the Church on the indissoluble marriage. The community is an instrument of mercy, which is ‘unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous’ (AL 297).” https://cvcomment.org/2016/09/18/buenos-aires-bishops-guidelines-on-amoris-laetitia-full-text/. Section 5 permits the Sacrament of Reconciliation to couples who are unable to live continently, citing John Paul II’s letter to Cardinal William M. Baum (March 22, 1996), “Confession Must be Humble, Complete and Accompanied by Firm Purpose of Amendment” (https://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/JP960322.HTM). Section 6 mentions as an example of “diminished responsibility and culpability” a situation in which “a person believes they would incur a subsequent wrong by harming the children of the new union,” and declares that access to both Reconciliation and Eucharist might be possible (citing AL notes 336 and 351), but then insists in section 7 that this possibility is not to be understood “as an unlimited access to the sacraments, as if all situations warrant it.” Also, the reference to both sacraments could imply receiving Reconciliation first as a prerequisite, prior to receiving Eucharist.
 Section 3 of the Polish bishops’ draft guidelines for the implementation of Amoris Laetitia (published July 7, 2017) stipulates no change from the sacramental discipline of John Paul II: “In the matter of receiving sacraments by people living in non-sacramental relationships, the bishops remind people of the teaching of Saint John Paul II, whose continuator is the current Pope Francis.” http://episkopat.pl/komunikat-z-376-zebrania-plenarnego-konferencji-episkopatu-polski/. In Familiaris Consortio (par. 84), John Paul II stated that divorced persons who remarried civilly but now cannot separate—due to serious reasons, such as the upbringing of children—may only receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, followed by Eucharist, if they aim to live continently (as brother and sister). But even in that case, he discouraged public reception of the Eucharist, given “a special pastoral reason,” namely that “if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.” According to some media outlets, Pope Francis responded to the Polish bishops’ declaration (of June 2017) by stating that what Poland decided is right for Poland.
 1983 Code of Canon Law, Canon 915. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_P39.HTM. See also Edward Peters, “Resources for Understanding and Applying Canon 915,” http://www.canonlaw.info/canonlaw915.htm. Peters refers readers of canon 915 to the 1917 Code, canon 855, which explicitly links this prohibition to the concern for public scandal: “1917 CIC 855. § 1. All those publicly unworthy are to be barred from the Eucharist, such as excommunicates, those interdicted, and those manifestly infamous, unless their penitence and emendation are shown and they have satisfied beforehand the public scandal [they caused]. § 2. But occult sinners, if they ask secretly and the minister knows they are unrepentant, should be refused; but not, however, if they ask publicly and they cannot be passed over without scandal. (See also: Canon Law Digest I: 408-409.)” Notably, Peters himself maintains that ministers of communion are still bound by canon 915 until such time that it is formally “revoked or modified by papal legislative action.” Acknowledging that “neither the pope’s letter to the Argentines, nor the Argentine bishops’ document, nor even Amoris Laetitia so much as mentions Canon 915,” nevertheless he explicitly contends that “these documents [do not] abrogate, obrogate, or authentically interpret this norm out of the Code of Canon Law.” Edward Peters, “On the Appearance of the Pope’s Letter to the Argentine Bishops in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis,” In the Light of the Law: A Canon Lawyer’s Blog, December 4, 2017, https://canonlawblog.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/on-the-appearance-of-the-popes-letter-to-the-argentine-bishops-in-the-acta-apostolicae-sedis/. Acta Apostolicae Sedis, also known as AAS, is the journal of the official acts of the Apostolic See.
 See, for example, the 1983 Code of Canon Law, canon 331: “The bishop of the Roman Church, in whom continues the office given by the Lord uniquely to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, is the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.”